Ukraine’s military has rebounded despite budget and battle woes

An Oplot tank, manufactured by Ukraine’s state-owned UkrOboronProm arms factory. The factory is producing the tanks at a furious pace as Ukraine’s military rebuilds.
An Oplot tank, manufactured by Ukraine’s state-owned UkrOboronProm arms factory. The factory is producing the tanks at a furious pace as Ukraine’s military rebuilds. UkrOboronProm

When five Ukrainian soldiers were wounded recently by pro-Russian separatist gun and grenade fire in southeastern Ukraine, the news created little in the way of official outcry.

Part of the reason for that, despite the fact that Ukrainian officials insist that a cease-fire is holding in the embattled area known as Donbas, is that small-scale attacks are still commonplace in the region. A soldier was killed a week earlier. A soldier was wounded the day before that.

But the bigger reason for the silence on an attack that six months or a year ago would have triggered outrage is that fears about the staying power of Ukraine’s military have faded. In fact, experts on the Ukrainian military believe it’s now far stronger than thought possible 18 months ago.

Without international weapons assistance, burdened by a domestic economy that’s been teetering on the edge of collapse for the past year and despite being locked in the middle of a civil war where the opposition has active support from powerful Russia, Ukraine has managed to build one of Europe’s largest standing armies in the last year and half.

The Ukrainians have nearly doubled their military spending and look likely to significantly increase spending next year. Corruption remains a significant problem, with some estimates that even now as much as 20 to 25 percent of the budget is wasted. Still, that is a significant decrease. In past years, there were estimates that as much as 90 percent of the budget was stolen.

Experts around Europe caution that while what’s been accomplished has been impressive, it’s unlikely to be sustainable. Ukraine’s new military budget accounts for 5 percent of the gross domestic product, more than double the percentage NATO recommends and four to five times what many of Ukraine’s neighbors spend.

There is no doubting the fact that we’ve come a long ways in a short time.

Serhiy Zhurets, military analyst

“There is no doubting the fact that we’ve come a long ways in a short time,” said Serhiy Zhurets, the director of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. “Maintaining this level of commitment – or going any further – means making a choice between education and defense, the economy and defense. But at this time, under a clear and persistent threat, this was a decision we had to make.”

To understand how far they’ve come, it’s important to remember where Ukraine was when this began. Not long after Russia’s “little green men” (the Ukrainian euphemism for Russian troops from their Black Sea Fleet) took control of Crimea in March 2014, Ukrainian officials looked at the country’s defensive capabilities and realized they had no military options for opposing what they deemed an illegal move.

So, despite pledging never to give up on Crimea being a part of Ukraine, they did not respond. Instead, the newly formed government realized it had to scramble quickly to cobble together some sort of armed services or risk the entire nation quickly falling to Russian aggression.

In the years leading up to the current crisis, when military officials openly augmented their incomes by selling off pieces of Ukraine’s old Soviet weapons stockpile, there was a pretty standard rule: The military would come up with an estimate of what it would take to modernize the Ukrainian military, and the Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament, would approve a budget of about a tenth of that.

So the budget requested 2013 for 2014 was about $11.3 billion (at today’s exchange rate about $5.7 billion). The budget awarded, however, was about $1.3 billion, or about $690 million at today’s exchange rate.

That was the budget as Russian troops took control of Crimea and pro-Russian separatists with Russian military assistance began a fight for control of two Ukrainian states, Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively called Donbas.

As the fight in Donbas intensified, Ukraine could send only battalions of volunteers into battle. Those volunteers were asked to bring their own uniforms, plus one for someone else if they could afford it, as well as any weapons and ammunition they might have.

Being in the middle of war with Russia, however, prompted the Rada last year to approve a defense budget of about $2.2 billion. The planned budget for next year appears to be about $3.8 billion.

Craig Caffrey, a military budget analyst with IHS Jane’s, a defense consultancy, notes that there are often revisions to Ukrainian defense budgets, “so that’s not set in stone at this stage.”

The state-owned UkrOboronProm arms factory this year is expected to churn out 40 of its Oplot main battle tank, and next year will make 120.

But he expects defense spending to increase, at least in the short term, despite pressure on Ukraine from the International Monetary Fund to reduce its budget deficit.

“Defense is necessarily a prioritized area at present, though,” he wrote in an email, “so we’re certainly expecting to see a significant increase in spending next year.”

Ukraine won’t be the only player in the conflict with budgetary problems.

“On the Russian side of things, their defense budget is coming under a lot of pressure, too,” he wrote. “Military spending has more than doubled there over the last five years, but that is starting to put strain upon government finances.”

Russian defense spending has increased rapidly, as much as 26 percent last year alone. “But we’re expecting that to be the last major increase,” he wrote. “Spending in Russia reached 4.2 percent of GDP in 2015 and we’re expecting it to gradually fall back from that level over the remainder of the decade.”

Dmytro Tymchuk, a member of the national security and defense committee of the Rada and one of the foremost military experts in Ukraine, is tasked with overseeing Ukrainian defense spending.

Sitting at a table outside the chambers of the Rada recently, he excitedly discussed the country’s newly developed military strengths.

“Much of our equipment is old Soviet-era stuff,” he said. “The plants that make replacement parts, or which can upgrade them, are in Russia, and that market is off limits to us. So we’ve had to come up with ways to work around Russian suppliers. We’ve been quite creative.”

He repeated the number of Ukrainian troops that others here do: 240,000. He noted that when the fighting began, Ukraine had a fleet of more than 2,500 tanks, but that almost none of them was operational. In fact, when the Ukrainians sought to dispatch tanks to Donbas, it could find only a couple ready for use in battle.

500 number of Ukraine’s battle-ready tanks.

Now, he said, Ukraine has 500 battle-ready tanks and crews to run them. Broken tanks are being repaired and new ones bought at a furious pace.

The state-owned UkrOboronProm arms factory this year is expected to churn out 40 of its Oplot main battle tank, and next year will make 120. That’s a 2,300 percent increase over the five the factory produced last year.

Despite the gains, Mykola Sungurovskyi, the director of military programs at the Razumkov Center, a research center in Kiev, believes that Ukraine must improve its planning if the improvements of the last 18 months are going to be sustainable.

“The Defense Ministry reorganizes in the way it sees fit, while the Interior Ministry and Ministry of Foreign Affairs reorganize in their own ways,” he said. “In the end, there’s no integration and the system is unworkable. We had to change rapidly at first, under constant threat of collapse. But now we have to step back and look at the big picture.”

Stephen Long, an international security expert at the University of Richmond, said there is no reason to question the rate at which Ukraine’s military has improved, particularly because previously it was in such horrible condition.

But Ukraine shouldn’t start to be feel comfortable with its ability to stymie Russian aggression anytime soon.

“Right now, Ukraine is protected not so much by an improved military force, but by Russian attention being turned elsewhere,” he said.

Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews

Related stories from McClatchy DC